The sky's the limit

14 December 2010

The UAC Outback Challenge Plane
The UAC Outback Challenge Plane

The call to rescue came quickly. Someone had gone missing in the vast bush somewhere in Queensland. Probably being lost for a few hours already Outback Joe was in desperate need for help. The University of Sydney's UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) Team quickly got their UAV ready in Kingaroy and raced to Joe's rescue. The plane took to the skies, searched and located a person with its onboard camera and dropped him a life saving bottle of water. Well, that's how it worked in theory.

Truth be told Outback Joe was just a manikin and the rescue mission was "The Outback Challenge" in Kingaroy. As part of their theses a team of Sydney honours students developed a small aircraft with an onboard computer capable of flying itself.

"It's basically a model plane with a three metre wing span," explained 2010 team leader Mike Thomas, "which was fitted with an autopilot, a camera and a bottle dropping

The UAC team
The UAC team

mechanism. It was all developed by us." The students had a budget of $30,000 to do their research, which then featured in everyone's thesis. The group spent long hours in the workshop and the students developed a great team environment according to Thomas.

"This project helped me develop my skills in communication, project management and teamwork." said Thomas. "In hindsight it actually helped me understand what it was like in a working environment, and worked in my favour during a job interview." Thomas had heard about the project two years ago and was promptly hooked. "I just thought 'How can I become a part of this myself and also get others involved?'."

Though the UAV Team never made it to Joe's rescue by finding and dropping him a life saving bottle of water, the research undertaken for the challenge has a positive impact on real life rescue missions. That's why teams from across the world compete to win the $50,000 in prize money.

"We are proud of how far we've come with our aircraft, we conducted test flights and passed the flight safety reviews as well," said Thomas. It has been a hugely rewarding project for Thomas and now he is interested in recruiting new team members to keep the project going because the next competition will be on in Kingaroy in September 2011. And who knows the University of Sydney's UAV Team might then be able to successfully race to the rescue of Outback Joe. "Someone's got to win the challenge eventually; North Dakota came pretty close this time. But it would be great to have new people onboard to keep going and pay off our own efforts."

Everyone who is interested in contributing to the UAV Team, check out the UAV Outback Challenge website on and contact Mike Thomas directly on Students can also contact Alastair Michell on either or 0439 995 804.